Why North Korea Nabbed Two U.S. Journalists

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Yonhap / Reuters

U.S. journalists Euna Lee, left, and Laura Ling are seen in this undated combination photo released by Yonhap news agency in Seoul.

The northeastern Chinese city of Yanji sits a quick 30 minute drive from the border of North Korea, and is one of the best posts for trying to glean the goings-on in that eremitic totalitarian state. Thousands of North Koreans, now refugees, live in the city as well as other cities and small villages in the area, a reward for escaping across the narrow and heavily guarded shallow Tumen River that marks the border between China and the brutal regime of Kim Jong Il. But untold numbers of North Koreans have been shot and killed there as well, and as two American reporters on assignment discovered last week, the waterway can also be treacherous for journalists.

It's believed that Laura Ling and Euna Lee of the San Francisco based Current TV were nabbed by North Korean border guards in the early morning hours after allegedly straying past the border, an unmarked halfway point on the frozen river. It's not a good idea "to behave like it's the Belgium-French border" says Andre Lankov, a North Korea expert who visited the area last summer and only approached the border when he was accompanied by Chinese police. Less than 50 meters across a frozen no man's land and "you're dealing with the world's most brutal government." A Chinese guide as well as another western colleague were reportedly with the women but they managed to get back to Chinese territory. The party was, according to one report, on the North Korean bank of the Tumen when they were accosted by the local authorities. (See pictures of elections North-Korea style.)

It's not that Pyongyang doesn't welcome journalists to the People's Paradise. Each year, scores of journalists are invited to cover everything from glitzy festivals to picturesque mountain resorts and showcase factories. Everyone must obey the rules, which constantly change to make spontaneous exchanges with ordinary citizens very difficult, says one foreign journalist who visited Pyongyang recently. "This time," says the reporter, "I could take my laptop, but I could not walk alone in Pyongyang."

Cell phones and GPS's are a no-no, trips to the countryside without permission are almost always forbidden, with the occasional but rare exception. Most journalists are shepherded by a guide wherever they go, which is usually to view monuments of Kim Jong il and his deceased dad. They are told to shy away from asking citizens political questions. While residents of Pyongyang are less afraid to interact with foreigners than, say, a decade ago, they "won't speak to journalists without permission," says Lankov. Even at the joint South and North Korean industrial complex at Kaesong, just north of the Demilitarized Zone, journalists don't really expect to land interviews with regular North Koreans, says Voice of America's Kurt Achin, who was part of a press tour there about two years ago. (See pictures of the reportedly ailing Kim Jong Il, doctored by his government.)

But the real place to learn about North Korea is probably China. The country, especially the northeast, has the largest population of North Korean exiles and refugees. That fact was probably not lost on Lee and Ling. Many of the refugees get help from human rights groups. One such activist, Tim Peters, who has visited this region in the past, thinks the two American TV journalists were trying to report on the plight of stateless orphans, the offspring of trafficked North Korean women repatriated back to the North. "It's a mushrooming problem," says Peters, who notes that authorities have been making it harder for foreign journalists to cover the refugee issue there since the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics. He and others like him counsel journalists about the perils of interviewing defectors and navigating the border. People "unfamiliar with the terrain" could have a difficult time understanding the frontier's exact location," he explains. In the wake of this latest incident, "everyone is going to have to hunker down for now."

Observers expect the two American reporters now being detained for "illegally intruding" into the North will become a pawn to be used by Pyongyang at an opportune political moment. And with Pyongyang's internationally unpopular missile-satellite launch in the pipeline, analysts would be surprised to see the duo return home in the coming days. Pyongyang might also want to send a clear signal to other journalists that it won't tolerate any lurking around its border.

For now, it is not clear how much political capital this incident will cost China and the U.S. America has extricated its citizens from North Korea in the past, so Ling and Lee should make it home eventually. One thing is for sure: their misadventure will make it an even more daunting task for journalists to learn about the lives of ordinary North Koreans.

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